One of the most dangerous ideas in the workplace today is that racism is gone. Because it’s not.
Jesse Rothstein, professor of economics at Princeton University, shows the prevalance of racist thinking, even today. “Some people think racial discrimination is something that ended in 1972 or something. Some people think that segregation persists because minorities cannot afford the neighborhoods.”
But in fact, Rothstein found that there is a threshold for the percentage of people living in a city who are minorites. And once a city crosses that threshold, white people start leaving. In terms of white flight, Rothstein says, “There’s a real difference between a school with 5% minorities and a school with 6%.”
These are the people you work with. The white people who would leave a school district if it wasn’t white enough. No one wears a percentage sign on their shirt to let you know where they fall on the continuum of racist thinking, but we all fall somewhere.
I have written before about how subtle discrimination is. It’s not okay to be racist in an overt way. There is wide cultural agreement on this. Which means that the racism goes to places that are hard to pinpoint. For example, I reported that when we read resumes, we judge people who might be African American more harshly.
The advertising industry is so suspect in its hiring practices that the New York City Commission on Human Rights recently issued subpoenas in an investigation of systemic discrimination against African Americans. And an interview in CareerJournal unveils a long list of excuses the advertising industry uses to explain the lack of African Americans in high level positions.
In a new twist to an old story, Miriam Jordan reports in CareerJournal that employers are coming up with new reasons to discriminate against African Americans: “There is a perception that Latinos closer to the immigrant experience might work harder than black persons,” says Joe Hicks, who is African-American and vice president of Community Advocates, a nonpartisan group that aims to advance interracial dialogue.
So what can a white person do to improve the situation? Start with herself, of course. The more you understand your racial prejudices, the less they will show up at work. In the mean time, I polled a few people, and here are a some annoying things that white people say that African Americans wish they wouldn’t.
1. Don’t praise someone as articulate, as if you’re surprised. There has been a lot of dicusssion about Joe Biden calling Barak Obama articulate. My friend says he has experienced this problem many times in his life, but would never come out an say anything because he’d be labeled “too sensitive.” He quotes Michael Dyson, professor at the University of Pennsylvania: “Historically, articulate was meant to signal the exceptional Negro. The implication is that most black people do not have the capacity to engage in articulate speech, when white people are automatically assumed to be articulate.”
2. Don’t discuss politics. It is a mine field of offensive and inappropriate comments. The number of political issues that have underlying race issues makes politics too risky to contend with at work.
3. Don’t make racial jokes or comments against any race. Often whites think it’s okay to joke with a black coworker about Asian, Latinos, etc. This makes most people of color uncomfortable and also think “If whites joke with me about Asians/Latinos, etc. what are they doing when they’re with Asians/Latinos?”
4. Don’t say “you people” when referring to people of another ethnicity. It creates a division between you and the other person where a division is not necessary.
And finally, here’s a story someone sent me to illustrate how careless white people are at the office: “I recently changed positions within the same organization and willingly took a job in an office in a predominately black neighborhood. Whenever we have joint office meetings or we are in the main office only my white counterparts ask, “How are things going over there (code for “I wouldn’t be caught dead over there, do you feel safe, has your car been stolen?”) This question comes from people who never spoke to me before, and it was an every-meeting type question. In one meeting I responded with, “I don’t have a problem working around or with black people.” No one has asked since.